I've had a hard time working lately, and I don't think it's just because of the big move that is underway. Not to downplay how overwhelmed I feel by the prospect of starting over again. Not to mention the hours of packing up the mess in this house, and well, everything else that goes into moving. But it's also the news that I can't process anymore. So much bad news. I find myself trying to tune it out, and feeling guilty about that. But today I turned on NPR just in time to hear Ai Weiwei talk about his new documentary, Human Flow, about the current refugee crisis, and I was so moved by his compassion and authenticity. Just his voice put me in a new place.
I always knew moving would be hard, but it's mind-boggling, all that's involved. I feel completely overwhelmed! As I pack things into containers, I feel as if I am folding myself up into so many boxes, wondering how I will unpack in another place and time.
We are moving back to Virginia, the state where I grew up, and the state which is the backdrop of my latest book, Miss August--although Miss August is from another decade. I am beginning to wonder what this decade will look like to writers in the future.
We are moving next fall! This will be our backyard come October. Between then and now, we have so much work to do, but I have to keep this image in my mind--hills and fields and blue sky.
My next book, Miss August, is coming out in May! The description written up by the press:
In her latest collection, Miss August, Nin Andrews takes on difficult topics: racism, segregation, child abuse, mental illness, and sexual identity. Told from the point of view of three different characters, the poems take place in a small southern town in the Jim Crow South where opposition to racial integration is still strong. The book presents a tale of a boy’s discovery of his sexual identity, of profound love and friendship, and is also a portrait of racism in a specific time and place in American history.
The name of the book, the inspiration for the book, comes from an experience that happened when I was eight years old and was playing at a friend's house, and we came across his father's Playboy magazine. My friend opened it to the centerfold. I still remember staring and staring, feeling suddenly nauseated and terrified. THAT is not happening to me, I announced. To which he answered, I like Miss August. She’s what I want to be when I grow up.
Who knew? I was just looking for something on the internet, and these popped up. And there are even more. I was blown away! Thank you kind reviewers! I was only aware of one of them.
YOUTUBE 2016 Reviews of Why God Is a Woman: https://youtu.be/WbUgeb2IxmY, https://youtu.be/Fzl4sXuZdWE, https://youtu.be/Q8_fgDBB12s https://youtu.be/2WM2vLP-iWs https://youtu.be/k0u6QfxcY-4 https://youtu.be/FCYd0brRHJ8
"It is through… Art and Art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence. " Oscar Wilde
Reading this quote, I was reminded of an experience I had in third grade ---
One day in the middle of recess, I realized that I had forgotten to do my history homework, a written report on Patrick Henry. Worse, I was supposed to read my report aloud in class. In a panic, I snuck into the art room and quickly drew a picture (in crayon) of Patrick Henry in a black and gold (or rather, orange) tricorn hat, which I later presented to my teacher in place of the essay. I so admired his hat, I said, though I wasn't sure if Patrick Henry ever owned a tricorn hat. Then I added that I also liked his curly long hair. Miraculously, my teacher, Miss Tab, was, delighted with what she called my creative spirit, and she hung the picture up for all to admire.
I keep thinking I am in some kind of Looking Glass world.
I drew this comic before Christmas, but with the help of Jimmy--I've added some features. I am still learning how to draw with Flash . . .
I had to laugh when I read this in The Oxford Book of American Poetry: "I write in the American idiom," William Carlos Williams noted, "and for many years I've been using what I call the variable foot." One of the secrets of American poetry is that no one knows what the variable foot is.
It's that dark time of year when I settle into writing and don't think about the outside world, and when I revisit books I love. Over Thanksgiving I found myself once again flipping through my favorite anthology, which I blogged about here
And also discovered new books, like Dante di Stefano's Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, which I loved so much, I had to interview him. And Claire Bateman's Scape, which totally blew me away.
I don’t even know how to describe Claire except to say that I remember a review (which I can't find right now) in which she was called a modern day Hopkins. Like Hopkins, she really does seem to come from another world. She loves to play with your mind, or simply illuminate it for you, as in her poem, “A Few Things to Know about Reading,” which begins:
I. If a book hasn’t shaken you up even a little after three chapters, you must lay it aside since the very purpose of reading is to set all your pervious clarities resonating at incompatible frequencies.
II. Do not mistake reading for actual life, which suffers from lack of both compression and dynamic focus; not the prolonged mundane stretches no editor would stand for, the proliferation of character and incidents that apparently do nothing to advance the plot. Also, as you may have notices, the protagonist comes across as muddles, inept, though neither in the comedic for in the ironically reflexive post=tragic sense. The main problem with reality is that you aren’t allowed to skim it.
III. Do not mistake actual life for reading. Inside your brain, there is no homunculus waxing lyric on the events of your day, so you must quit feeding him truffles, and shoo away his attendants with their ostrich-feather fans.
("What If You Slept" by Coleridge has always been one of my favorite poems.)
The other day I was listening to two of my poet-friends complain bitterly about their parents. Among other things, they talked of how they wished their folks had an interest in literature. No one in their families read books. I couldn’t join in. After all, I grew up in a house of wall-to-wall books. I will never be as literate as my parents, and I owe much of what I know about poetry to my mother who read aloud from my earliest memories. I used to frustrate her to no end, asking her to stop when I liked a line or poem, and read it again. And then again.
Not again? she’d say.
Just one more time, I’d say. And we’d go around and around.
And in my mind, later, I would play with the lines. So as a girl this poem might be:
What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there—there was a rain shower
And when you awoke,
You were soaked to the bone . . .
And there—you discovered secret powers
And when you awoke
You could see through walls . . .
And there—your soul was made of sugar and flour
And when you awoke
You knew you were destined to be a baker . . .
And there—you climbed to the tip of God’s tower . . .
And when you awoke
You were still holding an angel by the finger . . .
I would keep going and going. This was one of the ways I passed my time. I called this game making-and-filling-in-the-blanks. I always liked games of fill-in-the-blank. My mother said if I continued in this way, I would never remember the correct versions of poems. She was right.
This is my latest post for the Best American Poetry Blog
After hearing about the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was reminded of my first grade class, particularly of a workbook for what was then called New Math. The workbook included pictures of sets of objects. Students were supposed to circle the object that did not belong. So one picture might include a bird, a dog, a pig, and a sandwich. The next, a fork, a spoon, a knife, and a tennis shoe. The next, a ring, a watch, a necklace, and a frog. What this had to do with math, I am still not certain.
But I liked the pictures, and I loved to think up stories in which one might want to include the circled items. I would explain to Mrs. Wallace, my teacher, that a sandwich could be used to feed the bird, the dog, and the pig. A fork comes in handy if you have a knot in your shoelace. The frog, of course, might have been a prince or princess once upon a time.
I was also reminded of discussions I had with the poet, Eleanor Ross Taylor, back when I was just out of college and first trying to understand the literary world. Eleanor had an acerbic wit and was unsparingly honest. Literary prizes, she suggested, are not all that you think they are. She talked at length about the different presses and literary connections and publishers one might wish to have, and I remember feeling so discouraged. I concluded that literary success is a bit like economic success in our country. There is the top tiny %, now referred to as the 1%, and that one dreams of becoming a part of, and then there is the 99%.
Eleanor also suspected that certain winners are actually compromise candidates. It’s hard to come to a consensus, she said, adding, we writers don’t agree on many things. That was especially true for Eleanor and me. She loved to ask me who my favorite writers were, but inevitably she would tell me how much she disliked them. About my beloved Garcia Marquez, she said, I simply cannot abide him. Of the French surrealist poets I adored in those days, she said, Really, I’d rather not get a headache. But you just tell me why I should. Once, when I showed her a poem by Russell Edson, she said, I don’t know what that is. Do you? And we both burst out laughing.
GC: Seeing the outer edges as you do, with so much humor, were you always that way as a child?
NA: To a certain extent, yes. I have always lived on the outer edge. I have always been a little bit of rule-bender, or someone who resists the flow. As a girl, I developed this rule or habit—that if someone told me not to do or say something, I did it. Or rather, I often did it. (I did use some judgment.) Good things resulted. So I continued with this habit.
That’s how The Book of Orgasms began. A professor told me not to use the word, orgasm, in a poem, and not to write about orgasms. Never mind that my orgasms were messengers from the divine . . .
This habit is also how, or maybe why, I met David Lehman. My college advisor despised David and told me never to take a class with him. (You know how English departments can be.) Before my advisor told me that, I had no intention of taking another poetry class, but, in an instant, I changed my mind. I left my advisor’s office and walked straight up these creaky wooden stairs and turned to the right, right into David’s office. I had never met him before. Are you Dr. Lehman? I asked in my polite voice, looking down at his desk at a copy of The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara. He blinked a few times and said, Yes, may I help you? I blurted out that my advisor had just suggested I take an independent study with him. (I think he knew I was lying.) That was the beginning of a long mentorship and friendship. I will add that if it had not been for David Lehman, I would not be a poet today. It was David who said, in his tactful way, that I was odd. Or different. And that being odd is a gift, not a curse.
What a thrill to be amongst such great writers. I have to admit, I was starstruck. Yep, that's me next to Wil Haygood, grinning like a fool.
Connecting Readers and Ohio Writers
MEDIA RELEASE – July 18, 2016
2016 Ohioana Award winners Announced
Literary prizes to be presented September 23 at Ohio Statehouse
Columbus, OH (July 18, 2016) —The Ohioana Library has announced the winners of the 2016 Ohioana Book Awards.
The awards, established in 1942, honor Ohio authors in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Juvenile Literature, and Middle Grade/Young Adult Literature. The final category, About Ohio or an Ohioan, may also include books by non-Ohio authors. The Ohioana Awards are among the oldest and longest-established state literary prizes in the nation.
“From the nearly 300 books that were eligible for this year’s awards, thirty finalists in six categories were selected by jurors,” said David Weaver, Executive Director of the Ohioana Library. “To make this short list is itself recognition of excellence and selecting a winner is a challenge. The books and authors chosen as 2016’s honorees are truly stellar.”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the awards, which will be presented at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on Friday, September 23.
The winners are:
Mary Doria Russell. Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral. Ecco, 2015.
Wil Haygood. Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That
Changed America. Knopf, 2015.
About Ohio or an Ohioan
David McCullough. The Wright Brothers. Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Nin Andrews. Why God Is a Woman. BOA Editions Ltd., 2015.
1. Different Ways to Say Fuck
I had five eye operations as a girl. After each one, I imagined myself emerging with perfect and uncrossed eyes. I would wait anxiously for the day I could peel back the bandage. But the surgeries were never entirely successful. The doctor always suggested that I have just one more operation.
These operations were complicated by my reaction to the anesthesia. The eye doctor had difficulty waking me after surgery. He once called me his Sleeping Beauty, but it was a sleep that worried him. I was sick, too, and usually confined to bed for a week or two afterwards.
During that time of recovery, my mother would visit my room with a pile of old books to read aloud. She always chose volumes of myths, fairy tales, poetry, parables, or folk tales, usually antiquated books with beautiful pictures and ornate language. She read one story after another, hour after hour, as I lay, dozing, hypnotized by her beautiful reading voice. A former school teacher, she liked to ask questions about the stories. My answers, she complained, didn’t stay close to the text. I usually told her what a story reminded me of.
When I was eight and recovering from my third operation, for example, my mother read me the myth of Persephone. I said the myth made me think of a fight I had had with Trig, the farmhand’s son, a fight that began when he asked, You see what those cats are doing? pointing at the mating tabbies, Tigger and Rain. People do that, too. Only they call it fucking. And one day I’m gonna’ fuck your sister, Sal. I couldn’t help it. I slugged him as hard as I could. That was the day I got my first black eye.
My sister, I told my mother, was like Persephone. Only she wasn’t stolen yet.
My mother blinked a few times before saying, You shouldn’t get in fights. It’s not ladylike. And then she added, Don’t ever use that word again. And you know which word I mean. If you ever tell a story like that, find another way to say that word.
What other way? I asked.
Think about it, she said. You’re a smart child. For every word you use, for every sentence you speak, there are many other and better words or sentences to say the same thing.
For years after I thought of different ways to say fuck.
- Fucked Up
In my freshman year in college, I had a nervous breakdown. I rarely talk about this. Instead I prefer to edit that year out of my life. But the fact remains; I developed what I called a stutter in my mind. I felt as if I were becoming a stuck-record, going over and over the same sentences, thoughts, and ideas.
I don’t know if this experience is particularly unusual—after all, many people obsess. But it became a problem when I was writing. I would try to write a paragraph, but struggle to get past the first line. I would write and rewrite it as many as ten times. Then I would do the same with the second sentence and the third. When I completed a paragraph, I would revise it.
I would also change my topic, or my approach to a topic.
This problem began when I had a certain professor, Dr. B., who assigned an essay a week and then insisted on examining every sentence his students wrote, suggesting alternate ways of saying the same thing. He wanted to open us up to the possibilities of the imagination, grammar, and the English Language.
I can still hear his voice in my head as he read aloud one of my essays, pausing again and again to say, This sentence works okay, but how could you say it differently? Or, Are you certain that’s how you want to say this? If I didn’t answer, he would suggest alternatives.
After a while I saw every sentence as many sentences, or as a potential multiple choice test.
Worse were the grammatical options the professor offered. In this paragraph, he said once, I see three compound sentences in a row. Why not rearrange the third sentence so that you have an introductory subordinate clause? And break up the second sentence into two simple, declarative sentences.
A grammarian I will never be.
Soon my choice of sentence structure became another kind of multiple choice test. Or a game show. Will it be sentence structure number 1, 2, or 3?
I also found myself pondering the use of commas, particularly the Oxford comma which he preferred to leave out but said, at least in some cases, is necessary. And the comma before which, which is used when which is nonrestrictive but not when which is restrictive, and which I still find confusing. A case in point: the which in the first sentence of this paragraph.
It’s just comma sense, the professor would joke, but I wasn’t sure I had it.
In addition, there were the professor’s obsessions, particularly with the conditional and subjunctive cases. He said on one of my papers, Your use of the subjunctive is correct here, I think, but not necessary because the conditional would serve just as well unless you really think uncertainty is paramount. You should know that use of the subjunctive is currently in decline in the English language. But the conditional is also not ideal. Why not write in a more assertive tone?
He especially disliked semicolons. He hated how we students used them willy nilly, saying, The link between two independent clauses must be logical if one is to use a semicolon, just as the link between human beings should be logical if they are to get married, but of course, it rarely is.
And there were also the problems with the elliptical clause, as in better than me vs. better than I, and the split infinitives, and sentences ending with a preposition.
Finally there was his suspicion of the zeugma. Your compound direct object, he said once, could be considered a zeugma, but I would want to know that you know what a zeugma is. And that you decided consciously to use one here. Otherwise consider changing or dropping this sentence.
Instead I said I needed to drop out for a while.
Why? he asked me, looking startled. I said that I had just changed too many sentences, paragraphs, and my mind. Sometimes there is no more time for decisions and indecisions and visions and revisions. I was trying to be funny.
I am sorry to hear that, he said, adding under his breath, That’s fucked up.
- In Defense of Madness
That fucked up experience, or mind-stutter as I call it, has haunted me ever since. I still rewrite excessively, trying and failing to correct my grammatical errors. I still think I should edit any piece of writing, at least one more time. I still dream I am in Dr. B.s class, writing and rewriting those weekly essays. And I remember many of essays from his class. After all, I tried to write them as many as twenty or thirty times.
Just last week I was reminded of the essay I wrote on Jane Eyre when I watched a video by the amazing Jen Campbell, who, in her witty and entertaining style, illuminated aspects of the text and offered her insights, including the idea that Bertha is an aspect of Jane. (Who else could get 4,000 people to watch a talk on Jane Eyre?)
I was reminded of my title from freshman year, In Defense of Bertha, and how I wrote that many women should have a mad woman in their attic. After all, I was meeting aspects of my own just then.
I remember how I wasn’t certain that I could or should write about madness, Bertha’s or my own. My professor pointed out, I spent entirely too much time in the conditional case, pondering and overusing the words like perhaps, probably, maybe, might, would, should, and could.
He added that women are more prone to this problem, which he called conditional-overuse, adding that men speak more naturally and emphatically, a comment which has stuck with me and might or might not be true. Perhaps and maybe. Either way, it’s maddening.
- THE SEVEN SWANS
The more I worked on my Jane Eyre essay, the less I said about the book or Charlotte Bronte.
Instead I wrote about the fairytales my mother read aloud to me, specifically about the princesses in fairytale towers (Rapunzel, Maid Maleen, Sleeping Beauty) who were and weren’t like Bertha in her attic. The princesses were, instead, pre-Berthas. Prepubescent. Still waiting for their moment to be kissed and liberated. Or to be de-towered and deflowered.
Like Persephone, they were unwittingly waiting for a king to sweep them away. But would he be a king of the underworld or this world? And how could they not want to scream?
And then I began to digress even further . . .
I wondered whether fairytales ever put men in towers—or in some purgatorial space between heaven and earth. I concluded that there was one fairytale, The Seven Swans, where this is the case.
In The Seven Swans, seven brothers are trapped in the bodies of birds. And it is a girl, or their sister, who breaks the evil bird-spell and turns the swans back into men. But she doesn’t completely succeed. One brother is left with a wing in the place of an arm.
(Forgive me--I am short-changing the story here, skipping important details including the fact that the sister-savior of the story also spends time in a tower. And she is, of course, rescued and married to a king.)
I wondered if the sister worried forever after about the wing she didn’t fix? Did she stay awake at night, thinking of that single wing, dreaming of it rising out of her youngest brother’s back.
The wing, I think, is emblematic of how people live happily and unhappily ever after with their odd limbs, their crossed eyes, and troubled minds. Of how, after being poisoned or possessed, after becoming a bird or a sleeping princess or a prisoner of the underworld, one is marked for life. No matter how many hours of therapy one endures, a trace of the sleepiness or poison or the wing is still there. It can be tucked beneath a jacket or otherwise disguised. But the mind remembers, even if it wants to rewrite the past and make it perfect. And then rewrite it again.
I have always loved the image of a man with a single white wing.
This was previously published on Best American Poetry's blog